this particular odd-numbered year, striking red and chartreuse signs
everywhere proclaim "Pensa con i sensi, senti con la mente, l'arte al
presente" ("Think with the senses, feel with the mind, art in the
Yeah! Contemporary artists are supposed to shake things up a bit, right?
had the extreme good fortune of being able to spend a month in Venice,
and I assumed — wrongly — I'd be able to see it all. Now I know that
all the planning and research in the world will not prepare you. You
have to just go and get into your own Biennale groove.
Biennale, which celebrates contemporary art every other year, has two
main venues — both located near the "tail" end of the fish-shaped city
— and plenty other small ones all over the place.
national pavilions fill one section of the Giardini (Public Gardens).
They are permanent structures where these particular countries exhibit
each Biennale. This year the Padiglione Italia (Italian Pavilion) was
re-opened — after an eight-year hiatus — where more than 100 invited
international artists fill 42 rooms and two outdoor exhibition areas.
Arsenale (yes, it is where the word arsenal comes from) is a huge
compound of docks and very big buildings where more than 16,000 people
once worked and from which Venice's great merchant and military fleets
were launched. Construction of this enormous complex began in 1104 and
grew continually through the 16th century.
Biennale year, it houses works by 57 artists from around the world in
two long, narrow buildings separated by Turkey's first-ever pavilion
and culminating in the first-ever African pavilion. The Biennale
archives are here and so is a small building and courtyard with the
Republic of Georgia and Hong Kong exhibits, another Italian Pavilion,
and two absolutely breathtaking Chinese installations in an
unbelievable building called Magazzine degli Olii, where gasoline was
once stored and which is still filled with stunning rust-covered tanks.
And let's not forget the Automobile Club of Italy's history of the
automobile exhibit, also within the Arsenale bounds.
EXHIBITS GO ON AND ON
there's still more. Scattered throughout the city — including on
several of the tiny "neighbor" islands — are the "Participating
Countries in Town" exhibits — 29 of them. And there are "Collateral
Events in Town" — 33 of them. And there are many
unofficial-but-Biennale-like exhibits installed by savvy museum
curators and gallery owners capitalizing on the contemporary-art-crazy
crowds who visit during the Biennale.
not even going to mention the 5th International Festival of
Contemporary Dance, the 39th International Theatre Festival, the 51st
International Festival of Contemporary Music, or the 64th Venice Film
Festival, all officially parts of the big show staged during the
Biennale months of June through November. Because then it truly would
me assure you that if you start at either the Giardini or Arsenale,
pick up a free program booklet (or two or three if you're as messy a
note-taker as I), settle down with a map, an espresso — or a gelato —
at a comfortable cafe and make a plan, you'll do just fine. Or just go
for it — wander around aimlessly. That's a perfectly enjoyable way to
experience this unbelievable spectacle, too. And as you gaze in
amazement at hundreds and hundreds of works of art — some of them
massively large — keep in mind that every single one of them arrived in
Venice to take its place in Biennale history ... by boat.
THIS YEAR'S BIG IDEAS
surprises here. War dominates — and not just Iraq and Afghanistan but
World War I, Vietnam, Lebanon — in every visual medium you can think
imagine. Death — a subject artists have dealt with head-on since the
beginning of time. Some works stir sadness; some are positively
uplifting. Terrorism — in all its forms and in every sense of the word.
Displacement — both physical and cultural — and, much more hopefully,
sense of place and culture preserved. The suspension of human rights
and, happily, on the other hand, bold new freedom. For me, this is most
clearly illustrated by the artists from the former Soviet republics and
the Eastern Bloc countries: They display their newfound freedoms in
fantastic creative outbursts. There's also humor. And yes, there's
natural, peaceful beauty. For every picture tells a story, doesn't it?
Even if the message is as simple as "I'm beautiful."
BIENNALE'S GEMS WILL FIND THOSE WITH AN OPEN MIND
What were my favorites among the dozens of pieces I saw at Venice's 2007 Biennale?
I'll toot America's artistic horn. As most travelers know, we are not
adored overseas these days, especially in Europe. And so it is
particularly noteworthy that for the first time ever, an American
critic, Robert Storr, was invited to direct the Biennale. In my
opinion, he and all the participating American artists gave us plenty
of which to be proud.
playful-yet-profound art of Cuban-born American Felix Gonzalez-Torres
fills the U.S. Pavilion in the Giardini. Sadly, he represents us
posthumously; he died of complications of AIDS in 1996 at the age of
39. His signatures are light-bulb strings (he strings the bulbs and
then leaves it to the curator to arrange it as he or she sees fit) and
take-away components — most often paper stacks and candy drops, of
which there are "endless supplies." They are most always "Untitled,"
although descriptive cards do give clues to what he was thinking. They
are all here. Outside the pavilion is a spectacular sculpture which
Gonzalez-Torres sketched and designed but did not live to see
completed. Two stunning Carrara marble, barely touching "pools" are
filled to different levels naturally by summer rain. On sunny days,
overhanging tree branches in full bloom cast ever-shifting shadows.
Rhoades is another American artist who died young and before this
Biennale. His "Tijuanatanjierchandelier" is an eye-popping cultural
statement of neon, found objects, tourist kitsch, mattresses, more. It
fills an entire room in the Arsenale.
FACES OF THE DEAD
2004, San Franciscan Emily Prince began her ongoing memorial, "American
Servicemen and Women Who Have Died in Iraq and Afghanistan (But Not
Including the Wounded, Nor the Iraqis nor the Afghanis)." Her intimate
portraits, drawn on different "skin-toned" vellum, are each placed in
the soldier's home state on a U.S. map. Because of its scale, it takes
a minute for this work to register in its entirety, but when it does,
it is gripping. One naturally gravitates to one's own home state to
mourn, albeit briefly, the human cost of war.
Bill Viola's video project "Ocean Without a Shore" is one of this
Biennale's most thought-provoking works. Installed in the tiny
15th-century Church of San Gallo, it is an intense look at the thin
line between life and death and it is positively mesmerizing. My
friends had to drag me away.
video installation, this one by Chinese artist Yang Zhenzhong, deals
with death in an equally gripping and perhaps even more universal way.
Ten video projections on 10 very large screens show people in 10
different countries all saying, each in his or her own language,
directly into the camera, the exact same phrase: "I will die." I sat
enveloped in the dark watching these screens for a long time on several
occasions. Children, doctors, cab drivers, grandmothers speak an
at-first frightening phrase that truly and absolutely unites us all.
After the initial shock, there is something strangely comforting in
is also represented by a group of four artists who exhibited inside and
outside the Magazzine degli Olii at the Arsenale. The most chilling of
these works is "Weapons" and, although they look like missiles flying
through the air, upon closer inspection you realize that the interior
structures are "dressed" in clothes, much of it designer labels.
most poignant work for me is Moroccan Mounir Fatmi's "Save Manhattan
'03" in the African pavilion. It is another piece to which I returned
several times and was amazed at how many people passed it by or didn't
"get" it. A grouping of audio speakers quietly emitting "city sounds"
in the center of the gallery floor caught viewers' attention. But few
noticed the shadow on the wall behind that faithfully depicted the New
York City skyline ... including the World Trade Center towers.
was grateful to have come upon, completely by accident, New Zealand's
installation in a building on the Giudecca Canal that was originally an
ancient storage space used to pack salt, once one of Venice's most
important trading products. A collaboration between two artists of
Maori heritage, "Aniwaniwa" is a series of large carved sculptures with
internal video and audio projections and are suspended from the very
high ceiling. The floor is covered with black padding and black pillows
because lying prone is the only way to appreciate this work. It is the
story of the flooding of the Maori town of Horahora, the tale of the
submersion of a culture, a global warming warning. It is touching,
sadly familiar and magnificently presented.
most breathtaking pieces of all for me are "Dusasa I" and "Dusasa II"
by El Anatsui, an African artist born in Ghana who now lives and works
in Nigeria. You come upon them suddenly in the Arsenale. They face each
other, they are immense in scale and they look like curtains of gold.
They are, in fact, made of bottle caps, discarded metal tags, aluminum
and copper wire stitched together. I saw these many times, from far
away, up close, and every distance in between. I took many pictures of
them. And I still don't believe how incredible they are or how this man
could possibly have made them.
was much, much more: Russia's animated and live-action video that
leaves no contemporary subject unturned; Bulgaria's bizarre
intellectual property dispute with Russia over the AK-47 and, in the
end, yogurt bacteria; American Christine Hill's home-offices-in-trunks;
Poland's architectural "utopian memento" pressing against the interior
of the pavilion yearning to be free; the Republic of Georgia's
gorgeous, ominous paintings; Venezuela's glorious Gods of America
photographs; Singapore's comic book-ish erotic fantasy sculptures;
Spain's absolutely hilarious and unforgettable video "The Electoral
Night." And much more, there is always more.
here's my advice if the Biennale lands on your list, too. Leave your
expectations and preconceived notions at home. Pack as much
open-mindedness and wide-eyed wonder as you can fit into your suitcase
and just go. You will be roundly rewarded. The world of contemporary
art will, literally, unfold at your feet. And then it will surround you.